Spotlight

For the Record

Evidence on crime and safety in America

Criminal justice and immigration policy affects millions of lives in the United States. Yet, public policy is too often swayed by political rhetoric and unfounded assumptions. This is especially true in today’s era of rapid-response digital journalism, where the pace of publication means that stories with misleading information can easily go viral, and news consumption often occurs through curated social media feeds showing headlines that reinforce a person’s beliefs. Now, more than ever, there is a need for accessible, reliable information that can be used to fact-check stories in the press and on social media.

To improve understanding on justice issues currently elevated in public debate, the Vera Institute of Justice has created a series of briefing papers that provide an accessible summary of the latest evidence concerning justice-related topics. By summarizing and synthesizing existing research, identifying landmark studies and key resources, and, in some cases, providing original analysis of data, these briefs offer a balanced and nuanced examination of some of the significant justice issues of our time.

Despite its widespread use, research shows that the effect of incarceration as a deterrent to crime is minimal at best, and has been diminishing for several years. Indeed, increased rates of incarceration have no demonstrated effect on violent crime and in some instances may increase crime. There are more effective ways to respond to crime—evidenced by the 19 states that recently reduced both their incarceration and crime rates. This brief summarizes the weak relationship between incarceration and crime reduction, and highlights proven strategies for improving public safety that are more effective and less expensive than incarceration.
With a few hyper-localized exceptions that require targeted attention, violent crime rates are lower today than they have been at any point over the past four decades. However, this era of public safety has been misrepresented by some media reports and public commentary concluding that violent crime increases in a few cities equal a sweeping national problem. This brief examines those erroneous conclusions about current crime trends—using both existing and original research—and describes how to avoid common pitfalls when interpreting statistics on violent crime.